When a Baton Rouge police officer shoots someone while on duty, a fellow officer generally conducts the criminal investigation into the incident.
The same is true for deputies with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, troopers with the State Police and officers with most other large law enforcement agencies across the country.
But at a time when policing tactics everywhere are being scrutinized following recent, high-profile deaths of unarmed men at the hands of police officers in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, law enforcement leaders in East Baton Rouge Parish are talking about shifting gears. The idea is to form a multiagency team to investigate officer-involved shootings.
Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish’s district attorney and one of the main drivers behind the push to create the team, said recent national protests against police use of force did not spark the discussions about creating such a group.
“We’ve been working on it for months just trying to find the proper protocol,” Moore said, adding that it’s something he has wanted to bring up ever since taking office in 2008. He noted, however, that “the timing is now more conducive to taking this action.”
Although the details are far from finalized, the proposed team likely would be made up of members from the District Attorney’s Office, the Coroner’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office, the city Police Department and State Police. Team members would be on call at all times in case of an officer-involved incident, and they would respond to scenes immediately when dispatched, Moore said.
Forming such a unit would boost the transparency of investigations into officer-involved incidents, Moore said. And although neither he nor any other local law enforcement official could identify an investigation tainted by favoritism or bias, the district attorney said Baton Rouge’s law enforcement community is small enough that an extra layer of separation in officer-involved investigations wouldn’t hurt.
“We’re not quite that big,” Moore said. “Everyone pretty much knows each other.”
Both the BRPD and the Sheriff’s Office consist of roughly 700 sworn officers. By comparison, the State Police and the New Orleans Police Department each outfit about 1,200 officers with the power of arrest, while agencies in some of the nation’s largest cities are made up of thousands of officers.
The Baton Rouge Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office have similar procedures after officer-involved killings. In addition to internal reviews, homicide detectives work the criminal investigations. Each agency also deploys a specialized team of commanders to such incidents, representatives of both agencies said.
“The importance of having a good investigative team responding to a shooting is critical,” said Casey Rayborn Hicks, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, when explaining procedures. She added later, “We examine all the facts and physical evidence just like we do on any investigation.”
While rare, a few officer-involved shootings occur every year in East Baton Rouge Parish. A group of Baton Rouge police officers earlier this month shot and injured 28-year-old Kevin Knight after police and witnesses said Knight shot at them first. Just prior to the shooting, Knight — who was a suspect in an investigation into some threatening text messages sent to a woman — fled police and crashed his van into a house in north Baton Rouge.
The last officer-involved shooting involving sheriff’s deputies occurred in May. A group of narcotics deputies shot and injured 24-year-old Lionel Gilmore after authorities said Gilmore shot at them first.
The deputies were waiting outside Gilmore’s Tigerland apartment to serve a search warrant as part of an investigation into heroin dealing. Not long after Gilmore left his apartment, deputies approached him and an exchange of gunfire ensued.
If the proposed multiagency team comes to fruition, it would investigate such incidents across the parish.
In general, smaller agencies, such as the Baker Police Department, already solicit outside help if one of their own injures or kills someone on the job. Larger departments, on the other hand, from New York to New Orleans, typically investigate themselves, experts on criminal justice policy said.
The reason for such a pattern is twofold.
Officers at smaller departments are less likely to work complex homicide cases on a regular basis, thus leaving them ill-equipped to properly investigate an officer-involved killing. In addition, although no clear tipping point exists dictating how small is too small, the fewer officers there are in an agency, the more likely it is that they all know each other too well to prevent bias from seeping into an investigation, experts said.
Proponents for using outside agencies or multi-department teams for investigating officer-involved shootings said no matter the size of the department, such practices do more good than bad as long as — and this is key — people with the proper training and expertise are the ones investigating.
“It’s probably the best way to go for most agencies,” said Drew Tracy, a retired assistant chief of police in Montgomery County, Maryland, who in 2010 published an article in Police Chief Magazine outlining guidelines for handling officer-involved shootings.
“You improve accountability,” Tracy said. “And that’s extremely important.”
While not unique, such a move in Baton Rouge would certainly represent a deviation from the norm across the country, experts on officer-involved shootings said.
“Outside investigations are really the exception rather than the rule,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability.
Peter Scharf, a professor at the LSU Health Sciences Center’s Institute for Public Health and Justice who has researched officer-involved incidents, said best methods nationally for investigating such incidents include, at the very least, including a participant from an outside agency.
Even in large agencies where officers who work in different divisions may not know each other personally, they may have a mentor in common, or other subtle, indirect ties to each other that could cast a shadow on the integrity of an investigation, Scharf said.
During interviews, detectives investigating their fellow officers might be more likely to ask “softball, officer-friendly” questions, Scharf said, whereas officers “who have no dog in the fight” will probably ask more probing questions.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin became the first state to pass legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to call in help from another agency when officer-involved deaths occur.
“The public seems to be generally pleased with the way this has gone,” said Joel DeSpain, a spokesman for the Madison Police Department.
DeSpain said the department always had an outside agency observe officer-involved investigations even before the new law was created. He said it helped to “have a set of eyes that didn’t belong to the department.”
Regardless, it’s unlikely any one policy will satisfy everyone.
“There’s always going to be some people who aren’t going to be happy with the outcome of investigations no matter what,” DeSpain said.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.